friend of mine recently vented to me over text message about a particular phenomenon she had observed: “I’m sick of young women being ‘obsessed’ with and idolizing x y z female executive. I think it’s important to have role models or mentors and of course respect your elders and learn from them, but it concerns me when it borders on idolatry and we view them as otherworldly and something we could never achieve, because in reality, most of us are just as capable as these women we idolize, we’re just younger! Saying you’re ‘obsessed’ with someone who’s in a position of power minimizes YOU. Can’t we all give ourselves a little more credit that we can be the boss one day, too?”
I had to laugh when I finished reading her miniature think piece, not only because it was a substantial dispatch to receive out of the blue at 11:43 a.m. on a Tuesday, but also because it prompted me to recollect a conversation I’d had a few days prior in which I casually told a colleague I was “obsessed” with the high-ranking digital media executive she was planning to have coffee with. It suddenly struck me as a strange adjective to apply to someone whose career I admired (as if she was a hit pop song or a binge-worthy TV show instead of a human being I’d never actually met), but when it initially came out of my mouth, I didn’t think twice.
We are living in an era that glorifies confidence, especially when it comes to career and professional role models. There are entire digital properties (Girlboss), magazines (Bossladies), social networks (Bossbabe), online bootcamps (Bossed Up) and podcasts (Being Boss) devoted to spotlighting women with impressive careers and becoming more like them. And yet, at the same time, I’ve heard countless women (friends, industry peers, people who slide into my DMs) insist they routinely experience Imposter Syndrome, the psychological pattern experienced by those who feel like all their accomplishments are undeserved to the point of being crippled by self-doubt. Given how pervasive this feeling seems to be, I’ve started to wonder if minor lapses in confidence are being occasionally conflated with Imposter Syndrome — a condition I see as significantly more extreme.
I reached out to Lauren McGoodwin, the founder and CEO of Career Contessa, to get her take on this distinction. “The main difference between Imposter Syndrome and ‘normal’ lapses in confidence is persistence,” she told me. “Imposter Syndrome is a persistent internalized fear of being exposed as a fraud. People who experience Imposter Syndrome can’t easily be ‘convinced’ or ‘talked into’ feeling confident because they have a persistent fear that can’t easily be shaken with evidence that proves otherwise.”
Routine lapses in confidence, on the other hand, are something you might experience frequently but rebound from easily: “A normal lapse in confidence is exactly that…normal,” she said. “It’s a feeling that happens as a result of something else and while you might have your confidence shaken, you recover. The feeling doesn’t persist. For example, if you know you’re a great presenter but in today’s team meeting you really fumbled, you might have a moment where you sit back down after and internally review what you need to do differently next time. You might go back to your desk and remain pretty quiet for the day — but you recover.”
Making mistakes and recovering from them is more than just “normal” — it’s beneficial. I know this from my own experience; when I think back on all the errors I’ve made and lessons I’ve gleaned as a result, these are the seminal dominos that have tipped my career trajectory infinitesimally forward, equipping me with the clarity of hindsight. The sum of this recollection takes my breath away, because as substantial as it feels, I am keenly aware of how much more there is ahead, how many mistakes are in my future, how many lapses in confidence are waiting in the wings.
Having career models is a longstanding tradition — and a useful one — but 2018’s culture of worshipping them is a different beast altogether. There is a cost to having role models if it means mistaking the point of having one (i.e. having someone to look up to, someone to model yourself after, someone to strive to be like) with fangirling (i.e. treating them like a celebrity or something you can never attain). The latter approach is exacerbated by social media and more visibility around people’s career trajectories, and it paints the misleading picture that work-related confidence is something you either have or you don’t. Instead, I’ve personally found it helpful to think of it as muscle you can flex and gradually strengthen over time. I also like psychologist Richard Petty’s definition: “[Confidence] is the factor that turns thoughts into judgments about what we are capable of, and that then transforms those judgments into action.”
It’s worth noting that having decades of practice converting thoughts into action doesn’t preclude you from grappling with the same urge to compare yourself and your career to someone else’s — it just makes you better at figuring out how to ignore it. “I try to be as open and vulnerable as I can on social because I know there are so many people out there that DO indeed use it as a tool of inspiration, not just voyeurism,” Refinery29 co-founder and global editor-in-chief Christene Barberich told me over email. “I think as soon as I stopped comparing my social to others I admired, I felt more at ease with doing/posting what came naturally. And for me, I think that’s the trick…being honest with myself about who I am and what I love as opposed to what I think people expect of me…that’s maybe where the imposter vibes come in.”
So yes, anyone can be the boss one day, but no one is exempt from the muscle-building required to get there. Doubts aren’t necessarily a symptom of ineffectiveness so much as they are evidence that you care, and if that’s the case, you’re exactly where you need to be.
Illustrations by Meredith Jensen.